Bites of History: In savory, sweet dishes, vanilla bean’s flavor anything but boring

When it comes to flavoring desserts, nothing is used more than that little brown bottle of vanilla extract almost all of us have in our cupboards. But did you realize that, next to saffron, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world? The reason for its high cost is the vanilla bean’s complicated growing process. And although vanilla-flavored dishes often get labeled as plain, the process of getting vanilla from the jungle to your kitchen is anything but easy.

Vanilla is made from the fruit of the species Vanilla planifolia, and the ancient Totonacos, of the Vera Cruz region in Mexico, were the first to cultivate this tropical orchid. Those ancient peoples thought vanilla was a gift from the gods. They also believed that a princess and her unworthy lover were captured and beheaded on the spot where the stunning vanilla flower first grew.

In 1427, the Aztecs conquered the Totonacos, and from them learned to love vanilla, calling the prized spice tlilxochitl, meaning “black flower.” As a tribute to the Aztec king Montezuma, the subservient Totonacos were required to grow vanilla, which became a flavoring in the famous drink cacahuatl, made from cocoa beans, corn, ground vanilla beans and honey.

Then along came the Spanish explorer Cortés, who in 1519, became intrigued by vanilla in Vera Cruz and learned even more about it in Mexico City. The Spaniards named the exotic spice “vainilla” after the long vanilla bean pod and meaning “little scabbard.” They sailed the flavoring back to Europe, where the English eventually began calling it vanilla.

Meanwhile, the dessert-loving French really took a liking to vanilla and tried growing it in their tropical colonies, where vines grew and flowers blossomed, but the coveted vanilla beans would never appear. Turns out that natural pollination only happens with the presence of Melipona bees, a species of hummingbird strictly native to Central America. It wasn’t until 1836 that the French botanist Charles Morren discovered that vanilla flower pollination was difficult, and he, therefore, performed the act by hand. Soon, vanilla was being grown by Europeans in such tropical regions as the Island of Bourbon (Reunion) and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Today, 70 percent to 80 percent of the world’s vanilla comes from the islands of Madagascar and Reunion, with these beans often called “bourbon beans,” because they originated with the French plantings on the Isle de Bourbon.

Other major producing countries are Mexico and Tahiti, with a little even growing in such places as Australia, Costa Rica, Uganda, India, China and Hawaii.

The exhaustive commercial vanilla-making process starts with vines producing clusters of buds that eventually develop into orchids. These striking cream-colored flowers are thinned for quality and hand-pollinated. They then develop into thin green pods, averaging 8 inches long.

The tasteless, odorless pods are hand-picked and plunged into hot water and dried in the sun during the day and wrapped in woolen blankets at night so they can sweat. This dry-and-wrap process lasts from one week to two weeks, when the beans will become dark brown and develop a white “frost” crystalline substance on the outside called vanillin, which gives the beans their distinctive flavor and aroma. The beans are then aged up to two years.

Cured beans can be used whole or ground into powder, or steeped in sugar or in alcohol for extract.

Hand pollination, sun drying and sweating in cozy wool blankets — it’s a wonder pure vanilla extract isn’t more expensive.

So, maybe we should think twice before calling anything “plain vanilla.” And certainly, we should have more appreciation for that humble brown bottle that sits on our pantry shelves.

Cynthia Nobles is editor of “The Southern Table” cookbook series at LSU Press and author of “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can reach her at noblescynthia@gmail.com.

Sources: “History of Vanilla,” silvercloudestates.com; “Vanilla,” joyofbaking.com; “History of Vanilla,” inriodulce.com; “Vanilla,” www.vanillareview.